Ideas & Debate

High electricity demand key for nuclear plans

nuclear power
Kenya was recently hunting for a partner to produce nuclear power by 2022. FILE PHOTO | NMG  

The Kenya Nuclear Electricity Board (KNEB) recently indicated that their target for 2x1000 megawatt(MW) power plants by 2027 has now been scaled-down to 2x600MW by 2037.

The ten-year postponement is an indication of increased competition by various generation types to enter the national generation menu, and this is crowding out nuclear. It is also a reflection of electricity demands that have failed to grow sufficiently.

Power projects compete on basis of costs and tariffs; base-load supply versus peak demand balancing; strategic considerations like security of supply and balance of payment; project implementation timelines; and also environmental impacts. In a number of these considerations nuclear generation has its unique merits.

Nuclear generation in any “new- entry” country like Kenya is a long process which must be walked to ensure that the country has developed sufficient technical and regulatory capacity to guarantee a safe nuclear power sector. This is what KNEB has been doing all this time with indications that they are nearly there.

It appears that the energy planners have settled on geothermal as the base on which other generation types will provide incremental supplies. Geothermal is meant to balance the vulnerable hydro and replace imported thermal.

The nuclear power is attempting to enter the sector at a time when other newer options are evolving at a speed that cannot wait for nuclear to develop its regulatory and technical capacity.

The biggest threat to nuclear entry has been the renewable wind and grid-scale solar which over the past ten years have benefited from research and technologies which have permitted their construction designs to be scaled up and modularised thus significantly cutting down capital costs and project implementation timelines, while offering competitive feed-in tariffs.

Specifically in respect of grid-scale solar generation, as battery storage technologies advance it is becoming possible to store and inject day-time generation into the grid to supplement peak demands. This is already happening on a commercial scale around the world.

Above all, the green attributes of solar and wind generation, and their regulatory and economic certainties have made them preferred choices for energy investors and their multilateral guarantors. The two are less exposed to environmental and social activism.

Another looming competitor to nuclear is natural gas, if and when discovered in commercial quantities in the coastal gas-prone blocks where exploration is ongoing. Natural gas discoveries will potentially be prioritised into power generation, especially if quantities are not large enough to warrant massive capital intensive Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) export projects. Natural gas fits well within low carbon definitions.

Also undefined are the Kitui coal prospects which are likely to be accommodated in the power generation mix, in addition to industrial heating. Coal may be a high carbon type, but will qualify for promotion as a local resource “economic multiplier” with huge capacity for jobs and enterprise.

It is not as if nuclear technology development is static. Major enhancements are taking place for safer and cheaper nuclear power generation. However, its regulatory and environmental baggage keeps relegating it below other low carbon generation options. Nuclear remains essentially a political decision by the government which must re-assure Kenyans on the state of readiness by the country to safely embark on nuclear generation.

However, all said and done, the main frustration for nuclear entry remains absence of a robust electricity demand in Kenya. The “5000 MW by 2016” generation ambition has not been supported by demand growth, which in 2018 stands at only 1800MW. Diverse economic sectors, and specifically the energy intensive manufacturing, are yet to significantly grow electricity demands.

A question has been raised as to what level of nuclear institutional capacity Kenya should maintain, as nuclear continues to seek a place in the generation mix.

As long as credible and informed plans for nuclear power persist, we need to maintain a sufficient level of nuclear technical and regulatory capacity.

In the meantime Kenya should focus on growing the economy and manufacturing to create electricity demands to accommodate various power generation opportunities including nuclear.